The hour was nearly up and Dr. Clough, feeling more like a referee than a tutor, was deciding how best to put an end to it.
The wood-paneled room was handsome and cold—all the rooms were. Cambridge was cold. England was cold, without enough butter, heat, or fun. Clough’s eight M.A. candidates’ serious faces looked pasty. They wore woolen sweaters and tweed—two were wrapped in mufflers, and one sported the fingerless gloves of a Dickensian clerk. This lot was, as his Francophile colleague would say, bien engagé—un peu trop engagé, he thought. Gerald Babcock, he of the fingerless gloves, was an ectomorphic Etonian Trotskyite, so there was no disputing with him. He himself argued a great deal, of course—Trotskyites can
hardly help it—but the boy had a high-pitched voice, an unfortunate stutter, and expressed himself in such prefabricated clumps of words that nobody paid him much heed. In this class of bright young left-wingers the really significant red-flag-bearer was Jane Redvers, one of two women in the herd. The Master had made a point of informing Clough that the daughter of the Earl of Telford—very gifted, he understood, and rather good-looking—would be among his charges that term. Clough thought the hint to be nice was clear; but he hadn’t anticipated an enemy of the class system, practically an anarchist, and an exceedingly well-read one at that. He had gotten off on the wrong foot with Miss Redvers when on the first day of term he addressed her as Lady Jane. How was he to know she would take such umbrage? The few titled people he had met insisted on, seemed to revel in, their honorifics—Sir, My Lord, Your Grace, and so on.
The right wing was represented equally well, if uniquely, by Jack Moorcroft. Clough had gone out of his way to learn a little of Moorcroft. He knew the boy was not from money; on the contrary, his people only narrowly qualified as middle class. It was a maternal uncle, a bachelor, who was paying Jack’s way. Clough discovered the uncle had prospered during the war when he converted his zipper factory to the manufacture of ammunition belts. Moorcroft was an exceptional scholar and dogged polemicist who regularly squashed Babcock. Jane Redvers, however, after some initial diffidence, proved herself his match. By comparison, the others were sticks of furniture. Clough had to work harder than he liked to prevent his seminar from turning into debates. Redvers’s and Moorcroft’s frequent fencing and questions he found it irritatingly difficult to answer made Clough remember some advice he’d been given by a jocular senior professor his first week at high table: “Do whatever you’re able to keep your pupils away from the library, Clough. Libraries are places to find lectures.”
Clough got to his feet as a sign that the proceedings were coming to a close.
“Before you run off to search for some place warm, I’ve a problem for you to think about for our next session. It’s what our physicist friends call a thought-experiment.” He focused for a full second on each of the eight faces while he propounded the problem.
“Suppose the eldest son of a rich man inherits his estate. This includes a large tract of good land. The heir is spoilt, foolish, and indolent. He allows the manor house to fall into disrepair and his fertile acres to sit idle. It’s hard times. The local textile mill has closed, throwing hundreds out of work. The local families are desperate for land and housing. But, even pooling their meager resources, they can’t come close to affording the land, let alone the cost of building on it. Now suppose there’s a bright young fellow, a developer who has marvelous ideas on how to improve the land, innovative plans for inexpensive housing, and practical plans for new businesses.
“The question I want you to consider is to whom the estate ought to belong: the heir with legal title, the people with urgent needs, or the visionary with his brilliant plans.”
Jane Redvers began speak. “The people—’ and, at the same moment, Jack Moorcroft did too: “Legally—” “Shh!” said Clough and put a finger to his lips. “Next week,” he said, affecting an avuncular tone. “I hope you’ll all enjoy our Monday holiday as much as I’m sure the bankers will.”
On the way out Babcock stuttered at Clough: “It’s no-not the own-owner but the bl-bloody ownership.”
Even considering how she insisted on provoking him, Jane’s father had been more than usually short with her during the long weekend, the climax coming over Sunday dinner of carrot and potato stew.
Before stalking away from the table, sheepishly followed by twelve-year-old Charles whom everybody called Chipper, the Earl leveled a finger at his daughter and offered first a comment then a prophecy.
The comment: “I’m damned sick of hearing you bang on about this Jack Moorcroft. You’ve been complaining about him since you got home—and all because, so far as I can make out, he holds sensible views—and yes, I do mean views like mine. If you can’t bear the fellow, then it would be in good taste to stop talking about him so much.”
The forecast: “You were a bluestocking at ten, Jane. Now at twenty-one you’re a socialist. It’s easy to see that by twenty-five you’ll turn into the worst sort of feminist, and at thirty—a spinster!”
As he trailed after his father, Chipper glanced back at his sister ruefully, shook his head, and emphatically mouthed, “You won’t.”
When they were alone together in the sitting room, Jane’s mother explained. “I’m afraid it’s money troubles again, dear.”
“So that’s why he was on about the new taxes.”
“He has a point, darling. The Labor government does seem intent on—”
“Annihilating a thousand years of unearned privilege? Quite right, too.”
“This place means nothing to you, I know, but you might try to understand how deeply your father loves it and the things in it. He doesn’t believe they belong to him personally, you see. He feels a profound responsibility, a duty.”
“Oh,” said Jane airily, “I understand all right. The property must be clung to and handed on intact to Chipper—preferably with a smoother lawn and a new folly at the bottom of the garden.”
Lady Telford frowned, more disappointed than angry. “Sometimes, darling, I forget how very young you still are. It must be those big, rather brutal words you like to use.”
“Big words? The unanswerable argument of diction. The naughty child must be sent to the nursery. Brutal words? That’s just the sort of thing Jack Moorcroft would say if he hadn’t a ready riposte.”
“You know, your father was right, Jane. You do go on about this Jack quite a bit. What’s he like?”
“Infuriating—no, worse. He’s the incarnation of all that’s infuriating.”
Lady Telford looked away and smiled. “I meant, what does he look like.”
Jane shrugged and toyed with her skirt.
“It’s no wonder your father’s upset. We’re going to be selling the five best paintings. No help for it, he says.”
Jane was momentarily shocked. “Even the Reynolds?”
“And the two Turners, plus the Constable and the Van Dyke.”
The Reynolds? By an effort of will, Jane recovered herself and said vehemently, “Good!”
“I know you’re upset, darling, but apparently it’s necessary.”
“Upset? Of course not I’m not upset. They all belong in a museum so everybody can see them.”
“Only if the museum’s the highest bidder, my dear.”
“I’ll tell you what. If they do wind up in a museum, I’ll make Jack Moorcroft go and take a good long look at them. Art. . . liberated!”
Lady Telford was left still wondering what Jack Moorcroft looked like.
Jack took the train down to London where he spent Friday night and Saturday with his parents. On Sunday morning his uncle arrived from the Midlands in his big car for a brief visit with his sister and her husband. The Bentley carried the cook, Mrs. Hartley, and a cargo of groceries. They all enjoyed Mrs. H.’s baked ham and pastries before, as planned, Albert plucked Jack away.
Albert Underhill had bought himself a Georgian manor in Norfolk near the Little Ouse, not far from Brandon. He was having the place refurbished and was eager to show it off to his nephew.
Albert kissed his sister, pumped his brother-in-law’s hand, grabbed his nephew’s arm and bag, summoned Mrs. Hartley, and headed for the door.
Out on the curb, Albert threw the Bentley’s keys to Jack. “Thought you’d like to take the wheel.”
“Yes. Very much, thanks.”
“Once we get shut of the city the drive’ll be picturesque. So’s the new squat. I think you’ll like it, and we won’t be living rough,” he said to Jack. “The work’s nearly done and we’ve got the best cook this side of the Channel.”
“Oh, what rot,” said Mrs. Hartley clambering into the rear seat. “I feel like a duchess back here.” She waved her hand regally. “Drive on, Jack.”
Jack had known Mrs. H. since his first visit to his uncle as a child and they had their private ways of expressing affection. They teased each other along the way with reminiscing. “Remember the time you ate the chocolate truffle, my whole blamed dessert?” “Oh, that divine truffle. . . born of no earthly oven.” “I don’t know about that but you were sick as a poodle for two days.” Uncle Albert was in high spirits too and spoke with childish glee about the country house. Jack pleased him by asking after his new export markets and explaining why the government’s plan to turn London into Moscow was bound to come a cropper in months. As usual, Uncle Albert extolled Churchill; however, to Jack’s surprise, he approved the new National Health scheme.
“Reasonable taxes, Jack, make reasonable civilization possible. And a reasonably civilized country ought to be reasonably civilized.”
“Very reasonable,” said Jack dryly. “By the way, who sold you the manor?”
“I suppose you’re picturing some decadent aristocratic family, pater sitting out the war in the Admiralty while officer mater bravely kept the place above water by growing roses and brats—all of them pushed under by the Chancellor of the Exchequer.”
Jack chuckled. “Something like that.”
“Nothing of the sort. I bought it off Charlie Grimes. Known him for eons. Charlie was like me, you see. Did pretty well supplying leather goods during the war then went and invested too heavily setting up shop in the Punjab. Not wiped out, mind you, but he’s had to cut back. I gather he got it from some ruined lord back in the Thirties. Anyway, thought I might be interested. Quoted me a decent price and I didn’t like to squeeze him.”
“So,” said Jack brightly. “A man of property now.”
Albert scoffed. “Guess so but enough of that. Tell me what you’ve been up to in Cambridge.”
“A good deal of arguing, actually.”
“There’s this girl—woman, I should say—in my seminar.”
“That would be political economy with, wait a sec, with Clough?”
“You are well informed.”
“I keep an eye on my investments, Jack. Never forget.”
“Oh, I don’t. And I’m more grateful than I can say.”
“So then, you like this girl? Woman?”
“Simple question. Do you like her?”
This unexpected question acted like a catalyst and precipitated a realization that left Jack momentarily dumbstruck. He found he did like Jane Redvers; in fact, he liked her quite a lot. Jack’s astonishment concerned only the top of his neo-cortex; his limbic system and reptilian complex had been aware of the attraction for weeks.
“Tell me about her. Pretty? Solid stock?”
“Pretty? Very. Stock? I’m not so sure. She’s an earl’s daughter.”
“Lady Jane, then?”
“God help the man who calls her that.”
“She’s an anarchist. Maybe a Bolshie.”
“That happens,” said Albert smoothly.
“Noblesse oblige—though they don’t think of it that way, of course. Social conscience among the children of the aristocracy always begins with rebellion against their own class and a romantic conception of those below. It seldom lasts. Anyway, what are you going to do about it?”
“About liking Lady Jane, you dolt.”
Jack stared at the road. “Exasperate her,” he said with resolution.
Albert laughed and, from deep in the back seat, Mrs. Hartley did as well.
Albert’s new country house was large but not so much imposing as tasteful and well proportioned. The limestone walls had a rosy tint and were partially covered with creeper and scaffolding on the north side. The drive cut through a park with some ancient oaks.
“Well, what do you think?” asked Albert as Jack pulled the Bentley slowly up the gravel driveway.
“The England of an American’s imagination. It makes me think of Mozart.”
“Oh,” exclaimed Mrs. H., sticking her head between theirs, “it’s grand, grand.”
They unloaded the food, then the luggage. After Mrs. H. expressed satisfaction with the kitchen Albert showed her to her room, which, she said again, made her feel like a duchess.
Albert and Jack went upstairs. “There are six bedrooms in all. I had the builders finish two of them,” said Albert. “I think we’ll be comfortable enough.”
Jacked stepped into his enormous room. “Comfortable?” he said. “I think the varsity eight could make themselves comfortable in here.”
“There’s going to be central heating, too,” Albert bragged.
While Mrs. H. saw to dinner, the men took a stroll around the grounds. There were a couple of outbuildings, both in good order, a thick copse, and a stream feeding a pool beneath a paved terrace with a stone balustrade.
“I’m thinking of putting some statues up here, Roman. What do you think?”
“Perfection,” said Jack.
After a substantial dinner, Jack fetched his Conrad novel and the men adjourned to the library to enjoy their pipes. Jack noticed his uncle looking hard at a catalogue.
“Auction. There’s something I’m interested in.”
Jack put down Chance and got up to peer over his uncle’s shoulder.
“Paintings, Jack. The walls need some good ones. I’m only an autodidact, of course, but these are first rate. I might get one. Maybe more, if the bidding doesn’t go too high.”
Jack whistled. Constable. Reynolds. Van Dyck. Turner.
“Anonymous, of course. Always is. But, when he alerted me, my agent said it’s the Earl of Telford.”
“But that’s her father.”
“Her? You mean Lady Jane’s?”
“Aye, aye, sir.”
Albert turned in his chair and looked up at Jack with twinkling eyes. “Well, well. Tight little island, isn’t it?”
Later in the evening, thinking of Jane Redvers and when he’d next see her, Jack told his uncle about Dr. Clough’s thought-experiment. “What do you think?”
“Me? Oh, I think Clough’s a clever chap. It’s a problem with which any economy has to cope, isn’t it? There are always people who own resources but can’t or won’t use them and others who know how to use them but don’t own them; and, of course, the many more who need them but don’t own or know how to use them.”
“What about ownership itself? This house, the earl’s pictures, investment capital. What about private property?”
“What about it?”
“Oh, I think it’s a jolly good thing.”
“So do I,” Albert said at once. “But then I have a deal of it. Why do you approve?”
Taken aback, Jack mumbled, “Lots of reasons.”
“I’ll listen to one or two,” said Albert slyly. “You can rehearse your courtship by exasperation.”
“Well, just the exasperation then, the vexing of Red Lady Jane.”
“All right. Where there’s no right to property there aren’t any other rights, either. Hobbes the royalist and Locke the radical agree that the rights to life, liberty, and property—or the pursuit of happiness, as Jefferson elegantly put it—are from nature. The fundamental right is to life, but to live one needs both the liberty to choose one’s way of living, and property to sustain life. Governments don’t confer these rights and are there to make sure they’re not snatched away, certainly not to do the snatching themselves.”
“Not bad,” Albert allowed. “But if our rights depend on property, then mightn’t rights become proportional to the worth of that property? Not so long ago that’s how it was with the vote, you know.”
“True. Only a rule of law that divorces wealth from justice can prevent that.”
Albert smiled. “I know this solicitor keeps a brass plaque in his office that’s inscribed with a question: How much justice can you afford?”
“Don’t tell me you agree with Jane Redvers.”
“Oh, I don’t know, Jack. Probably not. But I haven’t read as much as you—or, no doubt, as much as she either. But I do hope you’ll stick up for private property. I’m quite fond of mine.”
Jacked pointed at the catalogue. “So, I imagine, is the Earl of Telford.”
Early November and the room was chillier than ever.
“Well?” said Clough. “Any of you scholars find the time to contemplate my little thought-experiment?”
Up shot the fair hand of Jane Redvers.
Her position was unambiguous. “Control of the estate obviously ought to go to the visionary developer on the ground that this is most likely to ensure the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people.” She turned toward Clough. “Two months ago you warned us to avoid the vulgar error of thinking the greatest happiness principle belonged exclusively to the Utilitarians. You advised us, sir, to regard this principle as the goal of every economic theory, not just Bentham’s but Smith’s and Marx’s as well. You were right to warn us against thinking it the property of any one of them. In the same way, it would be a mistake to think the estate belonged exclusively to a feckless twit simply because he happened to inherit it. Private property is the stumbling-block to happiness. According to Rousseau, it has been since the first man put a fence around a piece of ground, declared it his, and found fools to believe him. I’m only paraphrasing.”
“H-hear, hear,” cried Gerald Babcock.
Jane went on. “Bernard Shaw put it neatly half a century ago.” Here she plucked an index card from the top of a stack of the things and did a rather good imitation of the Irish playwright’s accent. “‘Property, said Proudhon, is theft. This is the only perfect truism that has been uttered on the subject.’”
“Bravo!” exclaimed Gerald.
Before Clough could speak, Jack asked Jane if she’d actually read Proudhon.
She glared at him. “Of course.”
“Yes.” Jack pointed to the index cards. “I can see you’ve prepared.”
There was nervous laughter and even Clough smiled.
Babcock jumped to the defense. “I’d say P-Proudhon and Shaw got it right. And m-maybe someday we sh-shall too.”
Ignoring him, Jack fastened his smile on Jane and said, “Semper paratus?”
“It’s a good motto and not the property of General Baden-Powell’s acolytes.”
The students laughed, aware now that they were an audience.
Clough, who did not want a prize fight, asserted himself. “Since Miss Redvers has brought him up, can anybody give an account of Proudhon’s position—something more detailed than the famous slogan?”
Jack, always with his eyes on Jane, crossed his arms and smiled away. Everyone else was silent, waiting—even Gerald Babcock.
Jane shuffled through her cards.
“I’ve got the relevant passage here, Dr. Clough. It’s from What Is Property, 1840.”
Clough sighed. “Anyone else?” He looked around, settled on Jack, who shook his head and returned to grinning at Jane like a well-fed pirate.
“Very well, Miss Redvers. It appears you still hold the floor.”
Jane read with as much feeling as if the words were her own. “‘If I were asked to answer the following question: What is slavery? And I should answer in one word, It is murder!, my meaning would be understood at once. Why then, to this other question: What is property? May I not likewise answer, It is robbery!, without the certainty of being misunderstood; the second proposition being no other than a transformation of the first?’”
“Thank you, Miss Redvers.”
But Jane wasn’t finished. She picked out another index card but didn’t bother reading from it this time. “The same view of property was taken by the most progressive early Christians, in particular Saint Ambrose and Basil of Caesarea. Property equals theft. Brissot said the same thing.”
Jack interrupted. “Brissot? That would have been shortly before his revolution cut off his head, I presume,” he observed coolly. “A question, if you please, Miss Redvers. Do you think Karl Marx agreed with Proudhon and the blessed saints?”
“Of course,” Jane scoffed.
“Well, yes, he did—at first. After all, a three-word, easy-to-remember slogan is punchier than workers of the world unite. But actually, after he’d thought through Proudhon’s formula, Marx didn’t. Agree, I mean. In fact, he had lots of objections.” As he spoke Jack put his hand in his breast pocket and extracted some folded papers.
“Such as?” It was an indignant Gerald Babcock, the only one in the room who had yet to catch on that what they were witnessing was a duel.
“Mr. Moorcroft?” prompted Clough superfluously.
Jack opened up a sheet of paper and read. “‘Theft as a forcible violation of property presupposes the existence of property.’ That’s Marx in 1865. He goes on to say Proudhon was guilty of—wait a second, here it is—‘all sort of fantasies, obscure even to himself.’”
Jane almost cackled with scorn. “So, what then? You’re saying Marx approved of private property?”
“Certainly. And capitalism, too.”
The class was enjoying itself. Nobody thought of interfering.
“Never got over being a Young Hegelian, did he? Inevitable dialectic. Marx said an economy had to go through early and late capitalism before the great proletarian revolution could create utopia. Funny, by the way. Marx used to dismiss any leftists who didn’t agree with him by calling them utopians.”
“So then you agree with Marx?”
“You know I don’t. It’s Marx who agrees with me. But you agree with him, Miss Redvers. That estate Dr. Clough asked us to think about—Britain, the world—you’d hand it over to a ‘visionary developer.’ That would be Karl Marx, the man with the plan. Correct?”
Jane narrowed her eyes. “You’re overstating things, as usual.”
Jack sailed calmly on. “After some lamentably unavoidable bloodshed and a few hundred five-year plans, property, classes, the state, and history will reach a glorious quietus. It’s like the Book of Revelations, only less specific.”
Jane, with rosy cheeks, replied contemptuously. “And all this is in defense of letting a useless twit keep an estate?”
“You bet. It’s his. By right.”
This was too much for Jane. “Ever see a dog trying to imitate a wolf, Mr. Moorcroft? That’s your petty bourgeois Tory.”
This was personal and the class gasped. Clough, who would have liked to interfere, spluttered.
“Oh, I don’t know,” said Jack, unperturbed. “The dog may be ambitious and full of good sense. All dogs, after all, are wolves at heart. Wolf is a wolf to wolf,” he joked.
“Better than a wolf attempting to imitate a mongrel.”
This evoked more shocked gasps.
“Mr. Moorcroft, Miss Redvers,” Clough cautioned sharply. “Please.”
Jack, still smiling, unfolded his last sheet of paper and blithely read. “‘In respect of property, harm and abuse cannot be dissevered from the good any more than debit can from asset. To seek to do away with the abuses of property is to destroy the thing itself; just as the striking of a debit from an account is tantamount to striking it from the credit record.’”
Jane, crossly: “And which apologist for the wretched status-quo is that?”
Jack, suavely: “That would be Monsieur Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, having second thoughts and muddying the waters just as Marx said. Confessions of a Revolutionary, 1849.”
Jane: “If there were no property, there would be no property owners.”
Jack, from memory: “‘What is owned by everyone is cared for by no one.’ That was Aristotle, thinking of Plato’s bad idea rather than Proudhon’s or Marx’s, of course.”
Babcock, fuming: “You’re ab-absurd and a-arrogant.”
Jack, smiling all the while: “As for your slur against the industrious bourgeoisie, what can I say? Yes, I’m middle-class—just barely.”
Babcock, furious at being ignored, spit a little as he said, “H-Hold on, Moorcroft. L-Let’s suppose you own a—”
“See?” said Jack. “The word own begs the question, don’t you see? Besides I own hardly anything.”
Jane looked down at her cards. “I didn’t mean—”
“That people like me always identify with the interests of those above them and despise those below? No, of course you didn’t mean that. Still, we are in the middle—or near it—and, as such, enjoy no repose. There’s always the imperative to rise and the anxiety about falling. That tension is a motor of energy and imagination. It’s why the middle class has taken the lead in all the genuine progress we’ve made since the dissolution of the monasteries. Who advanced the doctrine of rights because they needed them so badly? Only aristocrats pretend it was a bunch of barons at Runnymede. And these precious rights must include property, Miss Redvers, as Hobbes demonstrated by Euclidean deduction. Your Proudhon himself conceded in the end that liberty is property and so I hope, Miss Redvers, will you.”
“Well,” said Jack with a shrug, “it was only a hope.”
After that, Clough offered a few awkward remarks about the unexpected treat of this lively debate and assigned the class an essay on the post-war Austrian currency crisis; then everybody, even the livid Gerald Babcock, jumped up and walked out, leaving a serene Jack and incensed Jane still facing one another—not unlike the Russians confronting the Americans in Berlin, Clough mused as he gathered up his books and made his escape.
Sir Joshua Reynolds’ Portrait of Lady Caroline Redvers depicts a handsome woman in her thirties, fashionably dressed in satin of a blue that matches her eyes, seated on a gilded chair before a large window open to a cerulean sky and a green world. The background is roughed so as not to distract from Lady Caroline’s graceful hands and especially her countenance. Reynolds managed something wonderful; the face expresses both sympathy and something almost like mockery—raillery, perhaps. This was a confident and lively woman. Lady Caroline liked politics and politicians liked her; even Tories were regular visitors at Telford.
Jane Redvers had no idea, taken all together, how many hours she had spent seated on the stairs looking up to and admiring her ancestor’s portrait. Its sale precipitated in her a contest of head versus heart, setting principle at odds with sentiment, pitting an intellectual enthusiasm against a childhood attachment. All property was theft and yet this picture—she didn’t mind a bit about the others—belonged to her. No, it didn’t; but also, yes, it did.
When Jack saw the Reynolds portrait in his uncle’s catalogue he noted that it was the only picture of a Redvers family member. To part with it, he reckoned, meant the earl must really be in straits. This thought weighed on him and stimulated his imagination. Jane must love this picture. He began to imagine an impossible coup, un beau geste. The notion so took hold of him that it became irresistible, and the next time he went to Norfolk he found the nerve to speak to his uncle about it.
Albert Underhill, bachelor, loved his nephew and also his nephew’s fantastic notion. Perhaps he loved the latter because he loved the former. In recent years, he found one of the things he most enjoyed about his success was being Jack’s rich uncle.
“I’d pay you back, of course,” said Jack with impetuous earnestness. “Eventually.”
“Not a bit of it. Take it as a free gift, Jack. Anyhow, it’s still a sort of investment, you know. But first we’ll have to get hold of it.”
The auction was on a Friday afternoon in late November. After a good deal of vacillation Jane decided to attend. She didn’t tell her parents, who would, she guessed, have tried to forbid it. To watch that portrait go on the block, she told herself, would be an act of self-discipline, just penance for her unearned privileges. She thought of her running skirmishes with the maddening Jack Moorcroft and said to herself, “I’ll be putting my money where my mouth is—somebody’s money, anyway.”
Jack accompanied his uncle to the auction. The hall filled up quickly and they found seats on the far right of a middle row. It hadn’t occurred to Jack that Jane Redvers would, like him, come down from Cambridge for the event. He was taken aback when he spied her standing behind a pillar at rear of the hall on the left and quickly ducked his head. “She’s here,” he whispered hurriedly to his uncle. “Don’t want her to see me. Sorry. Bon courage.” Then Jack jostled his way through the late arrivals to the back of the hall and hid behind another pillar so that he could peer around it, keeping an eye on both Jane and the bidding.
The Turners both went high, as did the van Dyke. After that, quite a few people rose and left, demonstrably disappointed. With the diminished competition, Albert got the Constable for little more than the earl’s reserve. As yet, Jack detected nothing but indifference in Jane’s face or posture. She lounged against her pillar with flamboyant nonchalance.
The Reynolds came up last in the lot. Jack was excited, his attention divided between the auction and Jane. When the picture was brought in he saw her step away from the pillar and cross her arms over her chest, as if suddenly cold. He got one good look at her face and the sight made Jack feel something sharp in the center of his body, pain at seeing Jane Redvers looking not exasperated, angry, frustrated, or self-righteous, but simply distressed.
There were only four serious bidders. It all went quickly and, to Jack’s delight, successfully. He was shocked that he could think paying two thousand pounds for anything a bargain.
As the gavel descended, Jack stepped back from his pillar. Jane was standing completely still, her head bowed like an angel in a cemetery. Following an impulse, he went to her. She had a handkerchief in her hand and when she found him suddenly beside her, dropped it.
“Me,” he said softly and, still true to his impulse, took her hand. “Come with me.”
She was docile. He led her from the hall and around the corner to a pub.
They had less to say to each other than in Clough’s tutorials yet communicated better.
Jack accounted for his presence at the auction by telling her about his uncle having bought a new house and wanting some antique furnishings for it.
Jane explained about the Reynolds, tried to make light of losing it and mocked herself for caring. “You’ll call me a hypocrite.”
“No,” he said. “What was it Proudhon said—something about striking assets along with debits?”
“Won’t your uncle be missing you?”
“Maybe. Probably. But I’m not leaving you,” said Jack stoutly.
Together they took the five o’clock train back to Cambridge.
During the weeks before Christmas his tutorial turned placid, focused, and dull. On the whole Clough felt relief; still, he was puzzled by the absence of the heat-generating abrasion between Mr. Moorcroft and Miss Redvers. The views of neither had altered. Both submitted first-rate, contradictory papers. Moorcroft had written an incisive essay on Adam Smith’s critique of mercantilism while Miss Redvers’ turned in a sympathetic exegesis of the views of the anarchist Johann Kaspar Schmidt, alias Max Stirner. The class made their way through the end of the syllabus, but all the energy had vanished.
Jack sparred half-heartedly, starting his discourses with phrases like “I take Miss Redvers’ point, but. . .”
Jane still made her ripostes but began them with unwonted courtesy. “Though Mr. Moorcroft’s no doubt better informed than I am, nevertheless. . .”
When he mentioned this to Mrs. Clough, a sensible woman and a lecturer in anthropology, she filled him in on the effects of sexual tension among the young and fertile.
“Ah,” he said. “Of course.” His excellent wife often made Clough feel stupid; it was the chief way he became aware of her excellence. Of her erudite husband, she once observed, “He knows everything—but that’s all he knows.”
On the last night of term Jack took Jane to his favorite restaurant, Cambridge’s cheapest. Oil cloth on the tables, plenty of pasta on the plates.
Jack leaned across the small table and took Jane’s hand, a gesture which she had learned not just to tolerate but enjoy. “Look,” he said, “we’ll both be with our families for Christmas.”
“Tradition,” she said. “In my family it comes with the air.”
“Sure. I understand. And I’ll be in London for the week. I’m not sure my father agrees, but my mother seems to think they don’t see enough of me. However, Uncle Albert’s invited me down to Norfolk for the first week of January. His new place is about finished; the dear fellow’s house-proud and needs to show it off. He begged me to bring somebody. May I tell him you’ll come?”
“For the whole week?”
“Two, if you like.”
She laughed, then frowned and squirmed a little. “This doesn’t matter and of course it shouldn’t, but, you see, my parents haven’t actually met you and—”
“Fine. Then I’ll meet them. You sort out the invitation and I’ll bathe. I’ll shave and rent a dinner jacket. I’ll lie about my origins and talk posh—I might even manage a public school stutter like Gerald Babcock’s if you think it would help.”
There was an invitation to dinner in Telford for the third day after Christmas. Jane and her father picked Jack up at the station in a pre-war Morris 8. “Lord Telford,” said Jack, “thank you so much for the invitation and for this unexpected honor. Lovely car, by the way. A classic.”
“Like my daughter,” the earl observed dryly, “nearly the same age.”
Telford Hall was a magnificent Tudor pile with additions, but signs of neglect were everywhere—uncleared brush and dead gardens, flaking stucco and crumbly cornices. The inside was much the same; that is, magnificent in general, decaying in detail. The introductions to the Jane’s mother and brother seemed to go well. They were friendly, natural, not at all pompous. He felt himself welcome and, though an object of scrutiny, not judged. Chipper was excited to have a guest but restrained himself. “Jane says you’re very smart but completely wrong-headed. Can you do Latin translations? I can’t. I prefer cricket; in fact, I’ve got a collection of old bats. Maybe you’d like to take a look at them?”
Jack saw at once where the missing pictures had been hung.
Dinner, vegetarian but ample, was served by an ancient fellow who kept mumbling at Chipper to sit up straight. Chipper ignored him. Jane had told Jack no dinner jacket was required. He looked presentable in his old Harris tweed and twills, improved with a new shirt and pair of oxfords. He was seated next to Jane and the exclusive focus of attention. Neither nervous nor completely at ease, he was determined not to disappoint. Many questions were lobbed his way, so he spoke a good deal and in his usual style—a mixture of the ironically formal, rigorously logical, and purely antic—which seemed to please Jane’s mother and not to bore her brother. The earl was unreadable. Chipper roared at his story about how a class of undergraduates divided themselves into teams and played a term-long game of cricket by assigning runs and outs to the clichés and verbal tics which marred a certain professor’s lectures. “He was so pleased when there were cheers at the end of his last lecture. So far as I know, he didn’t even notice that they only came from the left side of the hall. It was a tight match, you see, and that the final ‘um’ decided the contest.”
Lord Telford ushered Jack to the library after dinner. Here he was treated to Jack’s views on the Labor government and a persuasive prediction of its imminent collapse. The Earl could hardly believe such a level-headed young man had engaged the affections of his Bolshevik daughter, but he was over the moon about it.
The consequence of the vetting was that Jane was granted leave for two days and one night in Norfolk.
Uncle Albert, not one to do anything by half, told Jack he had to take the Bentley to pick up Lady Jane. “Do you think Lady Jane’s people will be impressed or offended?”
“Please don’t call her that,” Jack reminded him.
“Oh, but I want to, Jack. Especially now that I know she can be won over by exasperation.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “You’ve been warned.”
Separated for a week, the young people were so glad to see each other that they neglected to argue about anything at all on the drive. They talked only about their families, their childhoods, themselves.
Uncle Albert greeted them at the door.
“Welcome to my house, Lady Jane. Jack’s told me I’m taking my life in my hands in calling you Lady Jane, Lady Jane, but I live dangerously, Lady Jane.”
To Jack’s surprise, Jane laughed and held out her hand to his beaming uncle who kissed it.
Mrs. Hartley popped out of the kitchen to have a look. She actually curtsied and offered Jack a furtive nod of approval followed by a thumbs-up. Jack was glad that she didn’t trot out the famous story of the chocolate truffle.
Jane was taken on a tour of the house and duly admired everything.
“I thought you were poor,” she whispered to Jack.
“I am. It’s my uncle who isn’t.”
“Evidently. What did it?”
Dinner was jolly. The Christmas decorations were still up, the meal was sumptuous, even by Mrs. H.’s standards, the conversation amiable, light, and apolitical.
After dinner, Albert excused himself, saying he had to make a phone call.
Jack took Jane’s hand. “I never gave you your Christmas present,” he said.
“Present? I didn’t give you one, either.”
“True. And I’d have been desolated if I didn’t know your views so well. Rousseau and Proudhon probably didn’t give Christmas presents, though I suppose Saint Ambrose might have.”
“I like your uncle.”
“They don’t come any better.”
“Millionaires or uncles?”
“Don’t tease. I meant human beings.”
“I can see how fond the two of you are of each other.”
“Yes, we are. And since I’m every bit as fond of you and think Proudhon had the wrong end of the stick, I did get you a present. Wait here a minute. It’s upstairs.”
Jane was a little put out with herself for being excited to see what little trinket Jack had chosen for her.
He came back with something not small at all. It was big, oblong, heavy, and wrapped in silver paper that prettily reflected the light from the red Christmas candles on the table, the mantel, the sideboards.
Jane drew back her head and looked up at Jack warily. He leaned his gift against his uncle’s empty chair and presented Jane with a pair of scissors. As she cut the wrapping paper a little cry escaped her. It might have expressed either joy or dismay, possibly both.
“My God. You’re terrible,” she growled.
Jack smiled serenely at her as he had in Clough’s tutorial and, as he had done then, quoted Proudhon: “‘In respect of property, harm and abuse cannot be dissevered from the good any more than debit can from asset.’ We all have to accept the good with the bad, the losses with the gains, Jane. I hope you’re pleased, a little, at least, even if has to be against your will.”
Jane cut away the wrapping paper, and stared at the painting. She had never been so close to it. She touched her forefinger to its surface, which was smooth.
“What am I supposed to do with it?”
“Hang it back on the wall at Telford, stick it in the attic, cut it to ribbons, or give it to the National Gallery. Whatever you like. It’s your property now.”
At last she got to her feet and stood confronting Jack, who was holding his breath.
“You really are terrible, Jack Moorcroft,” she said bitterly. “Terrible,” she said sweetly.
Then Jane moved her face nearer to his until it was impossible to get any closer.
Robert Wexelblatt is professor of humanities at Boston University’s College of General Studies. He has published five fiction collections, Life in the Temperate Zone, The Decline of Our Neighborhood, The Artist Wears Rough Clothing, Heiberg’s Twitch, and Petites Suites; a book of essays, Professors at Play; two short novels, Losses and The Derangement of Jules Torquemal; essays, stories, and poems in a variety of scholarly and literary journals, and the novel Zublinka Among Women, awarded the Indie Book Awards first prize for fiction in 2008. A collection of essays, The Posthumous Papers of Sidney Fein, is forthcoming in October 2018 and the cycle of Hsi-wei stories will be published in 2019 under the title Hsi-wei Tales.